I’m sitting in the airport in Vancouver (and later on the plane coming home) and wanted to capture some of the thoughts I have about how the keynote went. I’m absolutely exhausted, so I’m not sure how coherent this is going to be, but it’s important to get this down before it’s glossed over and starts to fade away.
Some context – this was my first keynote as presenter (well, co-presenter), so I was a bit intimidated by that. I’ve been part of (and have given) presentations to very large groups, but never as Keynote Presenter™. Our ideas about what the keynote should be about all revolved around topics involving individual autonomy and control of content and learning, of ownership, and of thinking critically about the nature of relationships between students and teachers, as well as with institutions. Education vs. learning. Individual vs. institutional. Some potentially radical and non-traditional keynote topics, which would be completely unsuited to a conventional powerpoint chalk-and-talk presentation.
We had been joking about going into the keynote unprepared – I think mostly to mask nervousness about taking such a big risk with a “keynote” session. The three of us have been tossing around ideas and spit-balling what we’d like to do in the session for a couple of weeks – hoping to generate a level of discomfort and disorientation in the attendees – that this session belongs to them, not us. That learning belongs to the individual, not the institution. That they are in control of what they do, as are their students.
It was easily the scariest and highest “risk” sessions I’ve ever been involved in. We all knew going in that there was a real chance of some pretty dramatic “failure” if the people in the audience didn’t engage.
The first 20 minutes of the session were sheer torture (ironically, amplified by the fact that the microphones Just Didn’t Work™). We started by coming off the stage to emphasize that the session wasn’t “ours”. We all had wireless microphones, and were trying to wander, to solicit some form of involvement. We set up a web-based chat room to serve as a back channel, and left that on the Big Screen to help direct the session (I’ll come back to that later).
At first, every single attendee looked freaked out, uncomfortable, and wondering what the hell was going on. Why wasn’t there a powerpoint on the screen? Why are these jokers just wandering around? What’s going on? This is the lamest thing I’ve ever seen! What are they DOING? What a waste of time…
After the initial uncomfortableness wore off a little, people started to get into it. Certainly not everyone. The feeling of discomfort in the room was pretty tangible. I wound up subconsciously moving back closer to the stage to provide a semblance of a traditional keynote, I suppose trying to put people a bit at ease. Or, it might have been to put myself at ease.
This was by far the riskiest thing I’ve ever done professionally. I parachuted into Vancouver, and attempted to lead/herd 500(?) strangers into some form of guided anarchy. I was so far outside of my comfort zone it wasn’t even funny, fighting the urge to just bolt from the room. What the hell were we thinking?
And then it felt like it started to gel, at least for a portion of the audience. Some extremely interesting points were raised, and answered by responses from other attendees. We shifted to more of a Phil Donohue role, running with the microphones to people who wanted to speak up. Not everyone got engaged, but enough to drive the conversation forward.
For the last quarter of the session, we started to get some momentum. Questions and responses started to pile up, and I stopped hogging the microphone as much. If we’d had an extra 15 minutes, I think most people would have reached a level of comfort with what was going on so they would have gotten more out of the session. It didn’t hurt that everyone stayed seated for the iPod door prize draws.
The web chat back channel served an invaluable purpose. People were able to anonymously put “huh?”, or “what are they TALKING about?”, or “talk about GLU!” comments (etc…) up on the big screen, helping to guide the session. I think that open back channel helped to save the session, as it helped us get a better feel for what the Audience was going through. I’ll be keeping an archive of that chat transcript available to serve as reference later.
One thing I realized is that it is extremely hard to read an audience that size. A small group is easy to read. You can make eye contact. You can hear comments, rustling, shifting. You can see attention diverting. But in a room with several hundred people, it is hard to get a feel for what is going on. Even when someone was talking, it was quite hard to spot them in the sea of attendees.
So, what are the lessons learned from this?
- Open, anonymous back channels are insanely important to helping to keep a finger on the pulse of a Large Audience. The anonymity is important because people don’t have to worry about offending by saying something’s gone off the tracks, or is boring, or just by suggesting a topic without having to be put on the spot with a microphone shoved in their face. Having a working wireless network, and an audience with capable laptops, definitely helped here. But not everyone had a laptop. This works out something like “clickers” on steroids, and could be a useful strategy for other presentations, or in the classroom in general.
- The audience was too large for this kind of activity. Even half the size would have been better. This was approximately the same activity we’d run at both the Social Software Salon and Edublogger Hootenanny, but those events had participant counts around 12-ish and 50-ish, respectively. I hold those previous events as the best sessions I’ve ever been involved with, and am extremely proud of what we were able to do. That chemistry just didn’t happen during this keynote. Perhaps the audience-is-the-presentation model doesn’t scale to 300-500 people? More thought needed on this…
- Defining a narrower topic or series of topics is important. We’d set up the wiki page, but failed to fall back on it when the audience wasn’t engaging – we were perhaps overcommitted to drawing the audience out? Back to the Salon and Hootenanny – both had (comparatively) narrow topics well defined ahead of time. We’d tried to do that with the wiki page, but didn’t successfully fall back on it when things didn’t move forward fast enough.
In the final conclusion, I felt the session was both a success and a failure. I personally rated it at 5/10. Stephen gave it a 6/10. That’s not great. I’m not used to that. But, I think that it’s actually a good thing. I’d been staying inside my comfort zone way too long. It’s crucial to stretch out and try new things. Failure isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Worst case scenario, we modeled some risk-taking behaviour for the attendees, and survived the experience. Best case scenario, some of the attendees will have walked away with the seeds of some important new ideas waiting to germinate sometime in the future. No way to track that, though.
Am I going to be a little gun-shy about doing a session like this again? Probably. I’ll have to put some thought into how to ensure the session remains useful and interesting for everyone. It’s not acceptable to just push forward, knowing that half the audience is not with you (or, you’re not with them).
After the session, we schlepped our exhausted carcasses across the street to a hole-in-the-wall pub for debriefing. The discussion that Stephen, Brian and myself had there over a few brews was worth the trip and the risk all by itself. I’ve been needing that discussion for a long time, and am feeling a renewed sense of energy that I hope will last for a while. I think I will benefit a lot from learning about Stephen’s walkabout, as well as Brian’s thoughts and feedback. Thanks for that. You are both true friends, in every sense.
Update: Added a link to the audio recorded by Stephen.